Padres 2016 Season Preview, Part Three

We come to the third and final part of my 2016 season preview for the San Diego Padres.

In part one, we looked at the reasons for optimism, including lack of overhyped expectations, Tyson Ross at the top of the rotation, an upgrade at shortstop, and improved outfield defense.

In part two, we saw how the Padres have a number of things holding them back, including:

  • the loss of Justin Upton and Ian Kennedy to free agency;
  • a weakened bullpen;
  • uncertainty in the outfield and the back end of the starting rotation;
  • lack of production at shortstop (even while Alexei Ramirez is an upgrade, which tells you just how bad it was in 2015).

Today, we will examine that one word that will make or break the Padres season, after which I will predict how many games they will win in 2016.

So, what’s the magic word for this season?

Intangibles.

What is an intangible? It’s something that is not entirely clear; we don’t know how it is going to shake out.

For instance, the Anaheim Angels have Mike Trout in center field, so they know what they’re going to get: a .300 batting average, 30-plus home runs, and solid defense. That’s a pretty nice intangible!

Meanwhile, the Padres will likely have Melvin Upton, Jr. and Travis Jankowski, which means…what, exactly?

That is an intangible: you just don’t know what you’re going to get.

And so, here are the intangibles that the 2016 Padres must confront if they are going to be competitive.

  1. Can Wil Myers stay healthy? It cannot be stated any more loudly or more often: if the Padres are going to have any chance in 2016, Wil Myers needs to stay free of the injury bug. 

As recently as 2012, Myers was a highly touted prospect for the Kansas City Royals who smashed 37 home runs in the minor leagues. Considered by some in that organization to be the next George Brett, his team shocked the baseball world when they traded him to Tampa for James Shields (ironically enough, since they both now play for the Padres).

But after a promising rookie season in 2013 when he won the AL Rookie of the Year Award, Myers has been hobbled by a nagging wrist injury the last two years. The fact that it recurred last year is troubling.

So far, Myers looks healthy this spring. But only time will tell. If he can remain off of the disabled list, he could really help the Padres to be competitive, and hit 25 or more home runs, effectively replacing the offense that was lost with Justin Upton’s departure. But if not, expect 95 or more losses this year.

2. What kind of manager is Andy Green? When general manager A.J. Preller was looking for a new field manager, most people (including me) thought he would go with the safe choice of Ron Gardenhire. After all, Gardenhire had managed for 11 years in Minnesota where he won six division titles, and he learned two things that would have made him very suitable to the Padres: how to win in a small market, and how to work with young ballplayers.

But since when has anyone ever known Preller to play it safe?

Instead, he went with Andy Green, most recently the third base coach of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Prior to that, he managed for a few years in their minor league system.

Bottom line: Any time you hire a rookie manager, you’re taking a risk. Sure, you could get the next Earl Weaver, but more than likely, you’re getting the next Eddie Haas.

(Who is that? He was the rookie manager of the Atlanta Braves in 1985. You probably never heard of him before, but that’s my point.)

But so far, Green has gotten high marks—this offseason, he actually travelled to meet with many of his key players, one-on-one, and get to know them. Green also gave a rousing speech at the start of spring training that got his players pumped up.

Of course, none of that will matter if the Padres don’t win under him. We likely won’t know the verdict of Preller’s decision to hire Green for at least one year, but more likely two.

3. Will either Renfroe or Blash hit consistently enough? Losing Justin Upton to free agency was huge. His departure is a major reason why the Padres will probably win less than 74 games, their total from last year

But there is some hope on the horizon. While the light-hitting Jon Jay is the presumptive favorite to be the primary left fielder, there are two young right-handed power hitters who just might be able to fill the void: Jabari Blash and Hunter Renfroe.

Blash is very intriguing. Last year, he smashed 32 home runs at AA and AAA, while striking out 132 times. He is potentially lightning in a bottle.

On the downside, he is 26, and he still hasn’t made his major league debut. When any team has someone like Blash in their system and doesn’t call him up to the big club, there is a reason. Always.

Next is Hunter Renfroe. Still only 24, he is one of the Padres top prospects. Since he spend most of 2015 at AA with just over 90 at-bats in AAA El Paso, he will probably start there. But he figures to be ready for San Diego at least by August.

However, he is notorious for struggling early. Such was the case at AA San Antonio, before he finally caught fire. So when he arrives, don’t expect much early on.

4. Can Cory Spangenberg exceed his expectations? When Cory Spangenberg finally got the chance to play every day, he did fairly well: from June on last year, he hit .295 with a .354 OBP, showing that he is a potential leadoff hitter.

Fangraphs is skeptical, however. But if he can put up anywhere close to what he did from June-September 2015 when he batted .295 with a .354 OBP, he could be an asset for the Padres.

5. Was Melvin Upton’s 2015 season a mirage? The April 2015 trade of Craig Kimbrel from Atlanta to San Diego reminded me of trades kids made during recess when I was in elementary school: Team A would only give Team B their best player if they also took the best player’s little sister.

Only for the Padres, they didn’t have to take Kimbrel’s little sister (does he even have one?); instead, the price of acquiring Kimbrel was taking on Melvin Upton, Jr’s ridiculous contract (five years, $70 million).

But after a slow start, Upton actually had a respectable season: .259 with a .757 OPS and five home runs in 205 at-bats, including .321 is September-October. His defense in center field was also a noticeable upgrade over Myers’.

If Upton can produce at that level again, he could be more than just a placeholder until Margot is ready in 2017. If not, it could be a long season.

6. Will Andrew Cashner bounce back? One of the biggest disappointments of 2016 was clearly Cashner.

In 2013-14, Cashner looked like an ace-in-waiting. His ERA during those two years was 2.87, and his WHIP a strong 1.13. All he needed to do was get over his injuries, and all would be fine.

But that’s not what happened. In 2015, Cashner stayed healthy but regressed badly, going 6-16 with a 4.34 ERA and a horrendous 1.44 WHIP.

Since this is Cashner’s walk year, expect him to bounce back. But if he does well, the Padres could swap him in July for younger talent.

7. Will their bullpen hold up? I said earlier that the Padres were right to trade away Kimbrel and Benoit, as they were luxuries they could not afford at this time.

While I stand by that remark (and while I applaud Preller on a nice return), 2016 is going to be a tough year for the bullpen with those two anchors gone.

Take a look at their projected bullpen for 2016:

Fernando Rodney: while he has 236 career saves, he is 39 and his a lifetime WHIP of 1.36. That’s mediocre if you’re a starting pitcher, and downright nasty if your job is to pitch one inning per game.

Jon Edwards: He hasn’t played that much in the big leagues; just 31 games and 25 innings. He’s also 28, so this will be his first full big league season.

Brandon Maurer: Thank goodness Green has realized that Maurer belongs in the bullpen. He pitched well there last year, and is a potential closer.

Carlos Villanueva: One of the least noticed, but also among the best moves Preller made this offseason. At 32, he’s been around the block, and has pitched in 425 big league games. Last year, he had a nice triple slash of 2.95/1.16/.223 with St. Louis. If he can repeat those numbers in San Diego, Villanueva will have been a very worthwhile purchase.

Leonel Campos: This spring, the 28-year-old has struck out six and walked one in six innings. Granted, that’s a small sample size, but if he can repeat that, he could help the Padres.

Kevin Quackenbush: The closer-in-waiting prior to Kimbrel’s arrival last April, “Quack” took a step backwards last year, posting a 4.01 ERA in 57 games. Yet, he still had 58 strikeouts and a 1.23 WHIP in 57 games.

Nick Vincent: Though he has had a tough spring, Vincent figures to play a prominent role in the bullpen this year.

Bottom Line: While there is some good potential, most of these pitchers (and other candidates not mentioned) are either mediocre or unproven. Expect many changes and demotions until Green can find the right bullpen formula.

2016 Projection: And so, here it is: the 2016 Padres will finish at 70-92. It gives me no joy in saying that, and it could actually be worse than that—especially if Cashner gets traded, Rodney pitches like he usually does, and Myers again misses a boatload of playing time again.

The best they can hope for is .500, but that is assuming that all of the above intangibles work in their favor.

The big news for San Diego this year will be what they won’t see on the field:

  • international signings;
  • the amateur draft in June, where they have six of the top 84 picks;
  • the development of Margot and Guerra (and possibly seeing Margot this September);
  • the July 31 trade deadline—if Cashner bounces back and is traded, Preller should be able to get a nice haul for him. Kemp could also go if (a) he produces, and (b)

It bears repeating: like the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs of 2010-2014, things are going to get worse before they get better.

But there is hope: look at those two teams now.

If Preller plays his cards right, and if Green turns out to be a capable field manager, then the Padres will be very competitive around 2019.

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